Win or Lose, Trump Takes His Victory Lap

Ten times when the president has declared a questionable triumph.

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
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George E. Condon Jr.
Aug. 8, 2018, 8 p.m.

Few things are more central to President Trump’s self-image than to be seen as a winner. Both in business and in politics, as he wrote in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, “It’s a lot better to side with a winner than a loser.”

Over the last 19 months, though, he has learned that all presidents struggle with foreign and domestic checks on their power, and that no president wins all the time.

But that has not stopped Trump from declaring one victory after another. He sees wins where others see inconclusive outcomes or outright defeats. He sees wins when negotiations have just begun. He sees wins when processes have barely started. Since his inauguration, he has tweeted about winning 24 times, often in uppercase letters for emphasis. Only six weeks into his presidency, he tweeted, “We are already winning again, America!” Just since July 1 this year, he has declared, “Our country is doing GREAT” and “Great to have USA WINNING AGAIN!” and “America is WINNING AGAIN – and America is being RESPECTED again all over the world.”

Patience is not a sentiment that easily makes it into either his tweets or his statements. The lone time it showed up in a Trump tweet was June 25 when he complained about Harley-Davidson’s unhappiness with his tariffs. “Be patient,” he urged the motorcycle maker.

Routinely, his pronouncements of victory grow more vehement when the criticism of him is the loudest, such as after his recent summits with the leaders of NATO, North Korea, and Russia. Here are 10 notable areas where the president, perhaps prematurely, has claimed victories:

1. Achieving annual 4 percent GDP growth

When it was announced that the U.S. GDP grew by 4.1 percent in the second quarter, Trump celebrated “an economic turnaround of historic proportions” and gushed about an “amazing” accomplishment. The White House was quick to mock economists who had expressed doubt when candidate Trump promised annual growth of 4 percent during the campaign, something that has not been done since the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The problem is that there is nothing historic about this. As CNBC’s John Harwood pointed out, the 4.1 percent quarterly number has been topped 37 times by the five presidents before Trump. Trump’s quarter would be the 14th-best under Ronald Reagan, 13th-best under Bill Clinton, and fifth-best under Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. Despite the happy talk, Trump is a long way from reaching the yearly numbers he promised.

2. Eradicating the terror threat of the Islamic State

In December, the president claimed almost complete victory in the “campaign to obliterate ISIS.” “We’ve won in Syria, we’ve won in Iraq,” he said, before acknowledging that its forces had spread to other areas. On April 12, he went further, tweeting, “The United States, under my Administration, has done a great job of ridding the region of ISIS. Where is our ‘Thank you America?’” The story, of course, is not quite so black and white. As The New York Times noted last month, ISIS’s loss of territory has not ended the organization’s threat. It “is adapting to setbacks and increasingly using the tools of globalization ... to take their fight underground and rally adherents around the world."

3. Fully repealing the Affordable Care Act

Trump routinely does two things when he talks about his promise to repeal Obamacare. First, he grouses that Sen. John McCain’s “no” vote denied him the big victory he sought in the Senate last year. Then he suggests that the vote didn’t matter because he’s been able to effectively kill off the program anyway. He cites the use of tax-cut legislation to end the individual coverage mandate and his later offering of short-term, bare-bones health plans. Despite all this, the popularity of Obamacare has hit all-time highs in polls and the overall program seems to have stabilized.

4. Persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons

The president was barely back at the White House from his historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when took his victory lap. “Just landed –a long trip, but everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” he tweeted on June 13. The same day, he wrote, “Before taking office people were assuming that we were going to War with North Korea.” He added, “No longer – sleep well tonight!” On July 9, he wrote “We agreed to the denuclearization of North Korea.” The only problem is that, as aides confirmed, the two sides had not even agreed to a definition of denuclearization. More recently, reports leaked from American intelligence sources indicate that North Korea seems to be building new intercontinental ballistic missiles.

5. Resolving Jerusalem’s status and bringing peace to the Middle East

Through decades of frustrating peace talks in the Middle East, negotiators on both sides knew that “final-status” talks would be the toughest to resolve. At the heart of those would be Jerusalem, claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as their capital. Enter Trump’s unilateral decision to move the U.S. embassy to the contested city. When he announced it, he carefully promised that “we are not taking a position on any final-status issues, including the boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem.” That quickly morphed into a declaration of diplomatic victory. In the past, he said, “They never got past Jerusalem. We took it off the table. We don’t have to talk about it anymore.” To the dismay of the White House, no one else in the region shares this view.

6. Forcing the European Union to back down on tariffs on U.S. products

When Trump sat down with Jean-Claude Juncker of the European Union on July 25, there were fears the trade war between Europe and the United States would worsen and the president would order tariffs on cars. That didn’t happen, which does count as a slight victory for free trade. The two leaders also offered some cautious hope for improvements. They agreed, according to Trump, to “work toward” freer trade and “work” to reduce barriers while the EU is “going to start” to buy more soybeans. He also said the EU “wants” to import more American natural gas. Also, they “agreed today to launch a close dialogue” on other problems. That included setting up “an Executive Working Group of very intelligent people on both sides.” There was nothing concrete in the announcement, but the White House hasn’t stopped trumpeting it as a great victory. “This was a big day for free and fair trade!” tweeted Trump. “Obviously,” he added, the EU and “the United States, as represented by yours truly, love each other!”

7. Eliminating the budget deficit

Under Trump, projections of the annual budget deficit have doubled, thanks to tax cuts and increased spending on both military and domestic programs. Years of deficits topping $1 trillion are now expected. But that doesn’t stop Trump from declaring victory over deficits, always citing a sunny view of economic growth propelled by his tax cuts. In an interview with Fox’s Sean Hannity, Trump predicted GDP growth of 8 to 9 percent and said he will turn the deficit into a surplus. “We have $21 trillion in debt. When this really kicks in, we’ll start paying off that debt like water.”

8. Taming Iran

U.S. relations with Iran have worsened since the president pulled out of the nuclear deal. But he has offered a rosy assessment, claiming in June that his decision has forced the leaders in Tehran to start behaving. “Iran is not the same country that it was a few months ago,” he told reporters. “They’re a much, much different group of leaders.” Especially with reports this month that Iran is about to launch a major military exercise in the Persian Gulf, no one outside of the White House is quite sure what the president is talking about.

9. Forcing NATO allies to shoulder more of the financial burden

Trump has spent much of the last two years spreading falsehoods about the NATO alliance and how it is funded. Now, he is spreading new falsehoods about his role in supposedly rescuing the alliance. At his recent press conference with the Italian prime minister, Trump said, “I went to NATO. And NATO was essentially going out of business ‘cause people weren’t paying and it was going down, down, down.” He said the NATO secretary general told him “we couldn’t collect money until President Trump came along. And he said last year we collected $44 billion. And this year the money is pouring in.” None of those statements is accurate. NATO was not going out of business, other allies were not in arrears to the alliance, and new money is not “pouring” into NATO. Trump continues to conflate the allies’ pledge to spend more on their own defense budgets with the notion of back dues to NATO or money somehow “owed” to Washington.

10. Helping Puerto Rico recover from Hurricane Maria

Trump wasted little time declaring victory in Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria, which battered the island with 155-mph winds on Sept. 20, 2017. Only 16 days later, the president dropped in, surveyed a little damage, talked to some handpicked officials, tossed a few rolls of paper towels, and downplayed the death toll. Asked how he would grade the White House response on a scale of one to 10, he replied, “I give ourselves a 10.” Then he prompted the governor, asking him, “When we came in, did we do a great job?” A few days later, he tweeted, “Nobody could have done what I’ve done for #PuertoRico with so little appreciation. So much work!” Despite his high marks, the death toll turned out to be much higher and it took nine months—until July—for the local power company to restore full electricity to the island.

President Trump meets with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in the Oval Office on July 25. AP Photo/Evan Vucci
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